QB Matthew Stafford
(2013 QB Rank—#4, 23.0 FPts/G)
Can sixth-year gunslinger Matt Stafford be the quarterback to serve a potential fantasy smorgasbord to owners in 2014? The Detroit Lions have focused their offseason on giving their franchise quarterback the pieces necessary for them to become a top-flight offense, copying the blueprint of the prolific New Orleans Saints. New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi brings the New Orleans scheme, and Lions brass, led by new head coach Jim Caldwell, have brought in the personnel in rookie tight end Eric Ebron and YAC maven Golden Tate. Stafford has never had a problem amassing impressive box scores, with 14,000-plus yards passing and 96 total TDs over the past three seasons. Drew Brees ascended to fantasy elite status in a similar system, but Stafford currently lacks the mechanics, efficiency and system experience of Brees, so fantasy owners expecting comparable results might be disappointed. That said, count on Stafford to approach another 4,500-yard, 30-plus TD season (a solid bet for top-five numbers), offering a more consistent TD/interception ratio on a game-by-game basis, as he will actually have short-to-intermediate route runners in Ebron and Tate and won’t have to force big plays downfield. Savvy owners will also notice the three-game homestretch at domed Ford Field late in the fantasy season in weeks 13-15.
RB Reggie Bush
(2013 RB Rank—#10, 13.8 FPts/G)
Reggie Bush was everything the Lions hoped he would be when they signed him in the previous offseason. He provided a big-play threat at the running back position—displaying dazzling tackle-breaking ability and sure hands—on his way to 1,000-plus yards rushing and more than 500 yards receiving. Bush stayed relatively healthy, playing in 14 games, but missed parts of others with nagging lower-body injuries. In an effort to keep Bush fresh, the Lions utilized Joique Bell in a similar role. Fantasy owners and Lions coaches soon realized that the fundamentally sound Bell could be trusted as a runner and receiver. With Bell signed to an extension, and a familiar system in the works, expect Bush’s carry numbers to drop but his receptions to rise as he slides into a Darren Sproles type of role in the offense. Bush should shine in PPR leagues, but barring a rash of injuries to the stable of Lions RBs, expect him to have a hard time approaching his top-10 finish of 2013, becoming more of an RB2/3 option.
RB Joique Bell
(2013 RB Rank—#17, 10.5 FPts/G)
Coming off a 2013 performance that included 50 catches, 8 TDs and nearly 1,200 total yards, Joique Bell inked a new three-year, $9.3 million deal this offseason. Bell makes up for his lack of measurables and elite athleticism by being a fundamentally sound and extremely disciplined football player—and on a team with elite passing weapons, sometimes that’s enough to get the job done. Doing work as a runner and receiver, Bell has amassed back-to-back 50-catch seasons as a mostly change-of-pace running back. As the offense morphs into New Orleans North, expect Bell to fill the Pierre Thomas role in the offense. Keep a close eye on Bell’s health as camp approaches—he has missed all offseason minicamps and OTAs with a lingering knee injury. Missing the early install of a new offense could get Bell off to a slow start, but expect him to approach and possibly surpass his ground numbers of 2013 (166-650-3.9), as he remains the Lions’ best between-the-tackles and goal-line runner. With the additions of Eric Ebron and Golden Tate, Bell no longer remains Matt Stafford’s first option in the short-passing game. If Reggie Bush remains healthy for 16 games, don’t be shocked to see a slight dip in Bell’s reception totals. With an uptick in touch totals, however, Bell makes for a decent option as an RB2, with a possibility for more should Bush miss any time.
On most teams, fantasy owners wouldn’t be all that concerned with a battle for the No. 3 running back spot. But this offensive scheme has a habit of including as many as three running backs in the game plan, so smart owners would be wise to see who wins the camp battle, and take notes. Theo Riddick, the sixth-round runner from Notre Dame, totaled just 13 touches last season. Mikel Leshoure, the former first-round pick, never worked his way out of the doghouse, totaling just two touches last year after racking up nearly 1,000 total yards and 9 TDs in 2012. At this point, neither RB is worth owning in anything less than the deepest of leagues, but should an injury befall Joique Bell or Reggie Bush, Riddick and Leshoure have the game to come in and potentially be valuable bench players.
WR Calvin Johnson
(2013 WR Rank—#3, 15.8 FPts/G)
Could help finally be on the way for Megatron? Will Golden Tate or Eric Ebron fill the role of Starscream? (You’re welcome, Transformers fans!) Season after season, Calvin Johnson had to shoulder the passing load for a Lions team that was simply unable to find a complementary receiver. The otherworldly Johnson stepped up to do his best superhero impression again last year, racking up an 84-1,489-12 line in only 14 games. So will the addition of Tate and Ebron impact Johnson’s numbers negatively or positively? A look at Johnson’s mates in the top five last year proves that it helps to be the MAN in the passing game. Between Johnson, A.J. Green, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, only Thomas had a teammate finish in the top 20. If Tate continues his solid play, and Ebron is as advertised, expect Johnson’s yardage totals to take a slight dip in 2014, but his catches and touchdown totals could slightly increase with the reduced defensive attention he receives. Any way you slice it, Johnson is a lock for the top five, and the potential top pick at WR.
WR Golden Tate
(2013 WR Rank—#29, 7.7 FPts/G)
Despite having only 64 catches last season, Golden Tate was the eighth-best receiver in terms of yards after catch in 2013. As sure-handed as they come, the former Notre Dame star was also among the league leaders in catch rate. Tate fills some gigantic holes in the Lions’ passing game. He gives Stafford a reliable short-to-intermediate target that has the ability to get yards after the catch, and he also comes with a winning pedigree and experience in big-game situations. When evaluating Tate from a fantasy perspective, it’s important to remember that he is going from being a No. 1 receiver in run-heavy Seattle to a complementary piece in what should be a high-volume passing offense in Detroit. The wide receiver position is as deep as ever, and the fact remains that there are lots of potential mouths to feed, and only one football. Expect Tate’s numbers to be heavily influenced by the use of Ebron. If Ebron develops quickly and forces Lions coaches to make him a must in the weekly game play, Tate’s numbers could stagnate or drop slightly. If Ebron comes along slowly, or one of the running backs succumbs to injury, Tate could be called on regularly and be a real fantasy asset. At this point, consider Tate a WR4/5 and stash him on your bench hoping for more.
TE Eric Ebron
(2013 TE Rank—N/A)
Say hello to the NFL’s newest version of the “move” tight end. At 6’4’’ and 250 pounds, Eric Ebron brings a level of athleticism and field-stretching ability this offense hasn’t seen in quite some time. Although he may have been drafted to play the Jimmy Graham role in Joe Lombardi’s offense, fantasy owners expecting Ebron to even sniff Jimmy Graham numbers will be gravely mistaken. Rookie tight ends tend to struggle even more than rookie wide receivers, and Ebron can no longer rely solely on his elite athleticism. In the Minnesota Vikings’ Harrison Smith, and fellow rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the Green Bay Packers, Ebron will face off against equally skilled cover safeties and, in some cases, linebackers. This passing offense still flows through Calvin Johnson, so a Jordan Reed line (49-499-3) is a good place to start as far as estimates go. Look for Ebron to be a TE2 early on in the year as he gets used to the NFL game, but because of his unique athletic skills and pass-friendly offense, expect a late-season breakout (à la Zack Ertz from the Eagles) that could make him a lower-tier TE1 option down the stretch.
TE Brandon Pettigrew
(2013 TE Rank—#31, 3.8 FPts/G)
The stone-handed, heavy-footed Pettigrew was brought back solely as a reliable blocker. Since catching 83 passes in 2011, Pettigrew has seen his targets and catches drop each of the last two years. With Golden Tate and rookie Eric Ebron in the fold, and an increased reliance on running back routes out of the backfield, expecting Pettigrew to improve on his No. 31 ranking in 2014 is pure insanity. Unless the Lions’ passing game is beset by injury, Pettigrew shouldn’t be anywhere near your roster.